EL RODEO, Guatemala (AP) — Authorities cautiously resumed search and rescue operations Wednesday in towns and villages devastated by the eruption of Guatemala’s Volcano of Fire, with time quickly running out to find any survivors.
Workers poked metal rods into the terrain to release smoke, an indication that super-hot temperatures remained below the surface three days after the volcanic explosion that killed at least 75 people. Once a verdant collection of canyons, hillsides and farms, the area was reduced to a moonscape of ash by the avalanche of fast-moving molten rock, mud, and debris.
After a drone survey, police managed to reach a farm where a home had been buried and people were believed to have been trapped inside.
At least 192 people are missing, and the death toll was sure to rise.
At the wreckage in the village of San Miguel Los Lotes near the base of the volcano, rescue crews were operating again but rain from the previous night had caused the ash to harden.
“We are analyzing the terrain,” said David de Leon, spokesman for the disaster agency Conred.
Authorities warned that the rain increased the chance of muddy flows of volcanic material and other debris. A red alert remained in place for the departments of Escuintla, Sacatepequez and Chimaltenango, and people were advised not to linger near the affected zones.
Firefighters’ spokesman Julio Sanchez said Tuesday that 72 hours after Sunday’s eruption there will be little chance of finding anyone alive.
“We don’t rule out the possibility of some person alive, but the condition in which the homes are makes that possibility pretty unlikely,” Sanchez said, adding that some of the ash was still at temperatures between 750 and 1,300 degrees Fahrenheit (400 and 700 degrees Celsius).
On Tuesday, frightened people living near the volcano fled with their children and few possessions when authorities warned of fresh flows of super-heated debris, taking no chances after they were given little time to evacuate before Sunday’s eruption.
Traffic came to a standstill on choked roads and many without vehicles fled on foot, even from the city of Escuintla, which is located about 15 kilometers (10 miles) from the volcano and was not under an evacuation order. Businesses throughout the area were shuttered as owners joined the flood of those evacuating.
Mirna Priz wept as she sat on a rock at a crossroads, her suitcase in front of her and her 11-year-old son, Allen, and their terrier mix Cara Sucia by her side.
“You feel powerless,” she said. “I don’t know where I’m going to go. To leave my things, everything I have.”
But after seeing what happened Sunday, she was afraid to stay.
Also among those fleeing was Pantaleon Garcia, who was able to load his grandchildren into the back of a pickup with a jug of water and some food. They were heading to the homes of relatives in another town.
“You have to be prepared, for the children,” he said.
When the panic set off by the new evacuations became clear, disaster officials called for calm.